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BOSTON (CBS) – The New England Patriots can clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the Bills on Sunday, but their concern should be on staying healthy.
Tom Brady is nursing a sore left shoulder. The offensive line will be without Logan Mankins and possibly Matt Light. With the injury, protecting Brady will be at a premium as New England gets ready for the postseason.
OK enough about Brady’s shoulder, at least the health of it.
The Bills are no pushovers, even at 6-9. They are one of the three teams to beat the Patriots this season, and for good reason. In that game, Brady threw four interceptions, with Buffalo turning them into 24 points. And even though Buffalo is without their best player in running back Fred Jackson, his backup is no slouch as of late.
Here are some of the keys to a victory, and home field, on Sunday.
Contain CJ Spiller
Fred Jackson gave New England plenty of problems, and Spiller could do the same on Sunday. While he has not lived up to all the hype as a ninth overall pick our of Clemson two years ago, he has four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) in his last four games while putting up 331 yards on the ground.
“He’s picked up right where Jackson left off and he’s had a tremendous amount of production,” Bill Belichick said of Spiller’s last month and a half. “It’s not all outside, it’s a good mix of inside running, outside running. He’s broken tackles, he’s out-run guys, he’s made good decisions in terms of his run reads and things like that. He’s been very productive.”
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“Everybody has to have a point of attack on that guy,” said nose tackle Vince Wilfork. “He’s fast, he’s quick. A lot of people say he doesn’t run inside. Well, he runs inside; he can take the ball into us. He’s kind of like a Reggie Bush, who we had some trouble with last week.”
What reminds everyone of Bush are Spiller’s contributions in the receiving game. He only had two receptions in last week’s win over the Broncos, but Spiller torched the Dolphins for nine receptions and 76 yards two weeks ago (in a Buffalo loss mind you) en route to a 167-yard day (91 yards on the ground).
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has struggled the last month, throwing just three touchdowns his last four games. The loss of the dynamic Jackson is no doubt part of that. The Patriots had issues, as did the rest of the league, with Jackson, so look for Buffalo to try to get Spiller going early, setting the stage for Fitzpatrick to open up the field.
Take Care Of, and Take Away, the Ball
The talk the last month or so has been turnovers. The Patriots trailed both Denver and Miami, but used turnovers to their advantage to come back and win both games. That is a lot like what Buffalo did in Week 3, erasing a 21-point deficit thanks to a trio of second half interceptions.
“I think they’ve really done a great job scoring points off turnovers and getting a bunch of turnovers. In a lot of their wins they get a lot of turnovers. They certainly take advantage of bad offensive football, which we played plenty of that in our first game,” Brady said of the Bills on Wednesday. “I think it was just a very frustrating day because we didn’t really play to the level of our expectation and they took advantage of it. They have some very skilled players, guys that if you make a mistake, they’re ready to capitalize, especially the guys in the secondary. Hopefully there’s no repeat performance.”
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The Bills forced the Broncos to turn the ball over four times last week by way of three interceptions and a fumble by Tim Tebow. But Brady and crew have done a much better job keeping it away from the other team, with just one pick and one fumble in their last seven games. Overall, the Patriots are a +14 in turnover differential this season, tops in the AFC.
“I think as a team, we’ve done a much better job of that and that’s very important to us winning games,” Brady said of holding onto the ball. “When you turn the ball over four times in a game, it’s damn near impossible to win; it really is, especially if you’re not getting it from the other team. When you put yourself in a hole like that on the road against a team that can score points, you’re going to have a pretty tough time winning. We found that out the hard way. As a quarterback, you’re never going to stop pulling the trigger; you just have to make good decisions with the football.”
Over on the defense, they have the turnover bug, forcing nine in the last five games.
“Any time you get turnovers it’s huge. You give your team another chance with the ball, and with our offense the more chances we get the better we’re going to be,” said defensive end Shaun Ellis.
“Turnovers can always break a team down. They’re sitting there saying ‘if we don’t turn the ball over we have a chance,’ which is true,” said nose tackle Vince Wilfork, whose fumble recovery lsat week against the Dolphins sparked the New England comeback.
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“If they don’t turn the ball over, you’re looking at a whole different ball club,” said Wilfork. ”We have to understand that. Defensively we have to do a good job trying to create those turnovers to get our offense the ball so they can take advantage of those opportunities.”
Wilfork stressed at halftime last week against Miami that all New England needed was one play to turn things around. That play was a turnover. And recently, the Patriots have been the ones turning turnovers into points and it has allowed them to keep their win streak going. Taking care of the ball, and taking it away from Buffalo, will go a long way to avenging their Week 3 loss and clinching home field advantage.
And take care of Tom Brady too. He is kind of important.
Tune in to the Patriots final regular season game against the Buffalo Bills Sunday at 1pm on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub. Pregame coverage begins on 98.5 at 10am, with Patriots Gameday on WBZ-TV at 11:30am. After the game, tune in to The Postgame Show on 98.5, and Patriots Fifth Quarter on MyTV38.